I’ve been promising to review Black Swan before the end of the year, ever since a review was requested by Sdaedalus months ago. Now, with mere hours to go, I am writing it.
The most condemning, and yet honest, thing to say about Black Swan is that it’s not a film about ballet. In fact, ballet has little to do with the story. Even though the story intertwines itself with the story of Swan Lake, it is still nothing more than a device, a backdrop, for the plot to flow over. It could easily have been a story involving, a singer, or actress, or any other performing profession. Indeed, it was this use (or lack there of) dancing that I found most disappointing about the film.
Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the character of the dance choreographer, promises Nina (Natalie Portman) a more “raw and visceral” version of Swan Lake. Well, neither the film, nor the production of Swan Lake in the film, turned out to be all that visceral. A story involving the topic of a ballerina descending into personal madness, screams for the use of abstract, contemporary, interpretive dance, and yet, no such element was present in the film. If you watch another popular ballet themed film, The Red Shoes (1948), you'll see that it is full of dance, and not some awful disembodied CGI dance either. That film includes over 15 minutes of a continuous staged version of Red Shoes, and benefits greatly from it. More dance in Black Swan would have improved it a great deal in my estimation. I swore I wouldn't mention his name in this review, but I can’t help but feel that a more accomplished director like David Cronenberg would have done a better job in this regard; capturing a synergy between madness and dance.
Cronenberg is a director who understands how movement, and not necessarily that of an actor, can be so much more communicative than any spoken word. He is also a master at developing complex, non-conformal relationships between characters. Black Swan attempts this and fails. A film by Cronenberg may have given us more. Take for example, the stairs scene in his A History of Violence (2005). Rarely does one get to see coitus in a film, with as much complexity and power reversal, as we do in that scene. We didn't get this complexity in Black Swan. The most that the viewer gets subjected to are lame attempts at tension, by physical domination; a maudlin sexual power-play between characters. Even the scenes of Thomas groping Nina are tame. If you want to see a truly frightening scene involving a dance teacher and her pupil, check out Isabelle Adjani's performance in Possession (1981), where she addresses the camera while taking pleasure in torturing a child dancer.
The director of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, has a history of making films with scenes involving lesbian sex. The seedy double-dildo scene in Requim for a Dream (2000) comes to mind. In Black Swan we get lapping at Portman’s crotch (although it could have easily been her belly button, such was the poor execution). Perhaps Aronofsky should just set aside a Saturday on a lazy weekend, and make himself a cheap and cheerful porno, just to get it out of his system once and for all. At the very least, he might discover how to direct such scenes in so they don’t come across so horribly fake and tacky.
What is most unfortunate about my dislike of Black Swan, is the way it has made me reflect on my original opinion of Aronofsky’s earlier film Pi (1998). For years, I have listed this as one of my favourite films, and indeed, if it were not for my viewing of Black Swan I would still be happy to have it listed there. Unfortunately though, my romantic memories of watching it through college were shattered when I rewatched it again after seeing Black Swan. It is, medicore at best. All the cool and “intellectual” stuff I thought was in it about deep mathematics comes across as nothing more than light weight number theory clap-trap, as if Aaron spent the afternoon before filming reading a pampflet on the topic. It’s still an enjoyable film to watch though, and at least in this one, Aronofsky refrains from gracing us with his lesbonic fantasies.
To give a final verdict on Black Swan, I find myself recalling stories of people killing each other while watching the it. I don’t think it’s that bad by any stretch of the imagination. It does have it’s moments and perhaps if one cares less about the dancing elements they might enjoy it more, but I still find myself thinking about the terrible CGI, the ham fisted intergration of Tchaikovsky's work into the score, the poor acting of the annoying actors playing wooden characters... If a numerical value suits the reader better, then I give it a very generous 5/10, it gained and extra mark for bringing ballet back into pop culture, and for Natalie Portman's eyebrows.
* I created "Les Cygnes et Les Corbeaux" a few days after watching Black Swan. It seems highly probable that it was inspired by my disappointment in the film.